Sometimes a kick in the teeth is the best thing in the world for you. Let’s hope this will be the case for Chinese martial arts. This week, a viral video of how a mixed martial arts (MMA) boxer thrashed a tai chi master in a fist fight in Sichuan (四川) shocked the public, but it should come as no surprise to professional fighters.

Ten seconds was all that MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong took to knock down “thunder master” Wei Lei. Xu, aka “The Madman”, kept landing punches on the floored tai chi master, who cringed helplessly on the ground, covering his head with his arms.

The fact Xu retired from professional MMA competitions 13 years ago after a career-ending injury made it all the more embarrassing for Wei. Wei was hailed in a documentary by China Central Television (CCTV) two years ago as “one of the greatest tai chi masters in China”. In that programme, he performed feats that wouldn’t be out of place in a Marvel film – such as using “chi” to create a force field that kept a pigeon from leaving his palm. Such a feat would fundamentally change our understanding of natural laws were it genuine. Yet millions of Chinese viewers were convinced of its authenticity.

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Not Xu. He accused Wei of fraud and questioned tai chi as a fighting technique. The two got into a heated spat over cyberspace that eventually led to their duel in Chengdu (成都), Sichuan, on April 27.

Wei’s humiliating defeat sparked debate in China over the truth of one of its most treasured traditions. For millions who grew up reading books, watching films and listening to stories of glorious kung fu, it is hard to stomach that such legends may be just tall tales. Like football to Brazilians, kung fu has become a quintessential part of Chinese identity. In no culture other than Japan have ancient fighting techniques been elevated to such status.

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This has not always been the case. In fact, while Chinese have practised martial arts for millennia, the public’s obsession with them is a modern phenomenon. Wuxia (martial arts) is the oldest genre of Chinese film and remains hugely popular today. Its rise in popularity goes hand in hand with the spread of nationalism. Kung fu has become an expression of Chinese resistance to foreign humiliation, a symbol of cultural uniqueness.

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Personal combat theories and techniques emerged in China at least 2,600 years ago. Over the centuries, these evolved into a rich and unique system, absorbing influence from neighbours. But unlike ancient Japan, which was ruled by a warrior samurai class, the Chinese scholar-gentry elite was not required to receive combat training. Martial arts remained a grass-roots subculture.

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It started to gain wider popularity towards the end of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. The remnants of the Ming army went underground after the Manchurian conquest. They organised themselves into secret societies – many taking the form of martial arts schools, particularly in the south – waiting for opportunities to rise again. They became the prototype of modern day triads – not unlike how bakuto (itinerant gamblers) in ancient Japan gave rise to the modern Yakuza gangs. Ironically, the Manchurian conquerors – ardent lovers of martial arts – later became their biggest sponsors and promoters. Tai chi is one of the schools that benefited greatly from such endorsement.

Tai chi is unique among Chinese martial arts. It is something much greater than a fighting technique. In its highest form, it is the embodiment of Chinese philosophy, cosmic views and martial arts. Its effectiveness as a combat technique has stood the test of time. The fact its legendary grandmaster Yang Luchan became the undefeated champion in Beijing and won the favour of the Manchurian court attests to that. Appointed as a teacher by the imperial family in 1850, Yang simplified tai chi. Yang feared the princes would hurt each other and he would be held responsible, so he stripped away the combat elements from tai chi, turning it into an exercise. This form of tai chi is the most widely practised today.

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After the Qing dynasty’s humiliating defeats at the hands of the technologically superior British in 1839, China entered a century-long dark age. It became a frequent target of foreign aggression. Against the modernised enemies, the ancient art of personal combat had become an expression of defiance, sometimes even a desperate hope. Stories of great masters defeating foreign fighters never failed to bring cheers to the people. During the Republic of China under the nationalist government, martial arts was elevated to “guoshu” (national arts) and was officially promoted.

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What really turned martial arts into a popular culture was a duel between two Hong Kong masters in 1954. The fight between tai chi master Ng Gong-yee and white crane master Chun Huck-fu was the greatest social event of the year. Since duelling was banned in Hong Kong, the fight was relocated to Macau. It received blanket media coverage and set public imagination on fire.

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The fight itself was a dour affair and ended with a draw. The techniques shown were unimpressive. But public enthusiasm did not subside. Newspapers began to carry serialised martial arts novels. Wuxia films dominated the box office. This gave rise to the legend of Louis Cha and the Shaw Brothers, whose works spread far and wide. Today, Cha is the most-read Chinese writer in modern history.

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While kung fu as a popular culture achieved spectacular success and evolved into a multibillion dollar business, as a competitive sport it fell into neglect. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, martial arts were banned and suppressed. Many schools, because of their association with the nationalist government, were shut. Martial arts entered an ice age that lasted until the 1980s. Its revival coincided with the rise of commercialisation in China. Martial arts schools in the 1980s and 90s were profit-driven and ill-supervised. Unlike jujutsu, karate or boxing, there is no modern management system to govern Chinese martial arts. There are few internationally recognised competitions or standards, making it prone to exaggerations or fraud. Today, it is still not a recognised Olympic sport.

The chaotic scene has given it a bad reputation. What Xu thrashed in front of the crowd in Sichuan was not tai chi, but the corrupted form of Chinese martial arts. After last week’s duel, some mainland media found Wei was a professional masseur before becoming a “tai chi master”. His qualifications were questionable. And what about those feats of wonder that he performed on CCTV? Xu told a newspaper that a producer of the programme told him it was staged. The pigeon had its feet duct-taped to Wei’s palm. In the end, it was still Newton’s laws – not the magic chi – that kept the bird from escaping.

Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations